NearandFarAZ

The scene I awoke to Sunday morning, Jan. 13, 2019, was anything but the sunny hiking weather I had been expecting. The weather forecast the day before had been predicting rain for Saturday night, followed by a partly cloudy day on Sunday. But in Northern Arizona – at more than 5,300 feet elevation – you never know.

Magically, that light rain had morphed into several inches of fluffy white snow.

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From trudging through snowy-white sand in New Mexico’s 90-degree autumn weather to venturing deep into the shady woods of central Czech Republic, my hikes of 2018 were varied, to say the least.

Also unique this year was my participation in the 52 Hike Challenge – a movement that encourages people to get out onto the trails at least once a week for the entire year.

It was fairly casual participation on my part, because I didn’t fully document every single hike I took on social media, and some of my hikes were repeats on local favorites. Even so, I had plenty of ‘first times’ too – from the beaches of Southern California, to the mountains of Utah, to the depths of the Grand Canyon.

So, as 2018 comes to an end, and as I close in on my 52nd hike of the year, I am taking a look back at the top 10 – my personal ‘greatest-hit hikes’ of 2018:

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When I moved from the upper plains of North Dakota to the desert southwest of Arizona years ago, one of the questions I frequently got from friends back home went something like this: “How do you get into the holiday spirit with no snow?”

True, it took some getting used to. In place of the frigid moonlight toboggan parties I was used to around Christmastime were balmy days at the barbecue grill. And rather than a landscape that was almost guaranteed to feature glistening snowy hills were towering saguaro cacti backlit by golden sunlight.

Of course, living in Northern Arizona, I still occasionally get a white Christmas. But they are few and far between. More likely is a holiday season featuring vivid blue skies, a few fluffy clouds, and mild 50- and 60-degree weather.

After a few decades of Southwestern life, though, I’ll have to say that the desert Christmas has grown on me. In fact, a lit-up palm tree can get me a little misty-eyed. I’ve come to appreciate the joys of wandering through the lit-up plazas, courtyards, and hotel grounds of the Christmas-y towns of Arizona.

Here are a few of my favorite Arizona spots to take in a delightful desert Christmas.

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For a true western experience that combines rugged high-desert terrain with refreshments in an authentic historic train-depot setting, Prescott, Arizona offers a classic duo: A strenuous hike in the Granite Mountain Wilderness Area, capped off with a fitting reward at the nearby Iron Springs Cafe.

Located west of the city, the wilderness area features a network of trails that zigzag through the granite boulders that make up the foothills of the massive Granite Mountain, Prescott’s largest and most prominent promontory.

And located conveniently along the way is the historic Hillside Depot building, which was moved to the spot decades ago, and now serves as the charming Iron Springs Cafe.

Among the most popular of the wilderness area’s routes is the Little Granite Mountain Trail, which begins from a trailhead located about eight miles from downtown Prescott along Iron Springs Road.

The trek is rugged and the climb is steep, but the payoffs are rich. Alligator junipers, agave cacti, and massive rock formations crowd the first mile or so of the trail.

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Whenever I hike the Peavine Trail in Prescott, Arizona, two questions come to mind: How can so many amazing features be packed into 5.5 miles? And why aren’t more people using it?

As my hometown trail, the Peavine has been on my radar for a long time. I’ve hiked it in every season, and I’ve checked out all of the “white-dot trails” that lead off of the main trail into the spectacular Granite Dells.

Certainly, the trail has grown in popularity through the years. It is a staple for locals out for a stroll and an increasing draw for tourists. Still, on a recent Sunday afternoon – under partly cloudy skies, with temps in the high 60s – I saw no more than a dozen other hikers and bikers as I slowly ambled along an eight-mile round trip.

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I have to say – this trail has something for everyone: A lively history as one of Arizona’s first rail routes; a smooth, wide surface with a gentle grade; a great location just a few miles from downtown Prescott; and stunning views of not just the orange-hued granite formations of the Dells, but also of the blue waters of Watson Lake.

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I’m not a native Arizonan. But in a state of transplants, my nearly 30 years in the Grand Canyon state often make me feel like an old-timer, with the accompanying insight into the vernacular, culture, and natural treasures.

So, when I noticed that lists were circulating on social media about things people in other states will never say, I thought it would be fun to come up with a list from my adopted home state.

One caveat: Some of these are probably wishful thinking on my part – especially among those recent transplants!

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It’s funny how the story in your head can change in an instant.

There I was practically skipping down the Granite Mountain trail, with a blog idea formulating in my head: The many faces of Granite Mountain.

And who could blame me on that warm, sunny Sunday? Granite Mountain – arguably  Prescott, Arizona’s most iconic promontory – had shown itself well that day. Backed by an azure-blue Arizona sky, the views of the pink-tinted mountain had shifted constantly as we ascended and descended its 7,600-foot summit. Despite the tough climb, I was relishing the many different faces.

Then, wham, I got an up-close look at Granite Mountain from an altogether new vantage point: In my face, as I slammed into a piece of granite jutting into the trail.

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With all due respect to Ewan McGregor and his epic around-the-world motorcycle trip (“The Long Way Round” – one of my favorite travel series, ever), I had my own – albeit smaller-scale – experience with taking the scenic route this weekend.

Ever since a friend mentioned this past fall that he had taken “the back way” to Jerome from Prescott, Arizona, I had been itching to try it myself.

To be fair, there really isn’t an un-scenic route to get to the mountainside town of Jerome. Taking the usual route over Mingus Mountain on Highway 89A offers its share of spectacular mountainous terrain and hairpin curves.

Still, that IS the “usual route,” and I’ve done it dozens of times. On the other hand, I had never tried getting to Jerome on the longer and slightly round-about way, via Chino Valley and Perkinsville Road. Read More

Living at a mile high has its perks – four distinct seasons, cool summer nights, and long, gorgeous autumns.

But, at about 5,200 feet elevation, the wintertime weather sometimes appears unable to make up its mind: Will it be snow, rain, sleet, or hail?

Early January 2016 was a prime example. Prescott, the mile-high city of Arizona, seemed to be right at the snow line. For several days in a row, the nights brought several inches of snow, while the days alternated between watery sunshine, icy rain, and snow. Invariably, the snow melted during the day – just in time for the next night’s snowfall.

Good for daytime driving conditions, maybe, but what about those snowy long walks? Not so much.

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There’s something about the gradual grade and snaking curves of an old railroad bed that gets my imagination going. Anyone who has childhood memories of hopping from tie to tie on a remote country railroad track can probably relate.

Maybe it’s the fact that in my community in Arizona, there aren’t many intact railroad tracks left – a combination of nostalgia for those faraway train whistles, and regret over the loss of a great resource.

Or maybe it’s the “damn the terrain; we’re going through” attitude that routed local train tracks through thick pine forests and granite mountains. Really, the perseverance required for some of the routes is awe-inspiring.

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What I know for sure is that I simply love walking along old rail beds that have been converted into hiking and biking trails.

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“Makes you feel kind of small, doesn’t it?” I asked my friend and frequent hiking companion as we topped a ridge with sweeping views of the Granite Mountain basin.

It wasn’t just the breadth of the view that caused us to catch our collective breaths, however. Spread before us along the Upper Pasture Loop Trail was stark evidence of the devastating Doce Fire that had swept through the area near Prescott, Arizona in June 2013.

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After a particularly stressful week at work, I needed a little diversion – something to take me to another place. What I needed, I decided, was a hike with a bit of a bite.

And I knew just the place. The Yaeger Canyon Loop Trail in the Mingus Mountain range between Prescott and Jerome has long been my go-to hike for a strenuous, quick workout in a beautiful setting. And some serious seclusion!

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